Schools have a responsibility to keep a remote option

Schools have a responsibility to keep a remote option

Isabel Mavrides-Calderon, Contributing Writer

Laura*, who is involved in the NYC accessible public school movement, was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease during freshman year of high school. She needed transfusions every other week, causing her to miss at least four days of school each month, in addition to the days she had to miss as a result of symptoms of her illness. Because of her absences, Laura was forced to withdraw from her public school and was offered homeschooling away from her friends and community for three hours a day. 

Laura’s story is not unique. For years, if you were a chronically ill or a recently disabled public school student, you were forced to drop out, offered a limited homeschool option, or were held back due to absences. While the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law which protects disabled people against discrimination, and the Individuals for Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provide some guidance regarding education and access for disabled students, in reality, the protection these laws provide to vulnerable individuals is insufficient. Both laws contain loopholes, such as only being required to fulfill  “reasonable and rational”  accommodations, stipulations which are broad enough to allow institutions to choose who and what they acc

ommodate for. This leaves disabled students with limited options for schooling. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the graduation rate for disabled students in the United States is 58.8%, which is considerably lower than non-disabled students’ graduation rate of over 80%. 

The barriers to access and the issue of attendance due to illness or hospitalization could all be minimized with a simple solution: remote schooling options. This isn’t a new concept. In fact, disabled and chronically ill students along with their parents have been pushing for a remote option in public schools for over a decade. While online public schools exist, they are not part of the same public school systems that students regularly attend. This effectively separates vulnerable students from the communities they belong to at a crucial time in their socio-emotional development. Before COVID-19, chronically ill and disabled students were told that a remote option at their schools wasn’t possible; creating the remote infrastructure wasn’t worth the money. Then, when the pandemic hit in March of 2020, this paradigm shifted, and remote learning became mainstream in America. Schools’ newfound accessibility following the pandemic gave the chronically ill and disabled community more opportunities than ever before. 

As a disabled person myself, I was able to experience a world without barriers for the first time. I competed in Speech tournaments one day after spinal surgery and organized protests in Australia from the comfort of my bed. This proved that my disability wasn’t what was holding me back. Lack of access was. 

I’m incredibly privileged to go to a private school like Horace Mann that has continuously been accommodating and has established safety protocols with considerable investments. However, the majority of disabled and chronically ill students in New York do not have access to counselors and an administration that understands the challenges of learning while chronically ill. Furthermore, Mayor Bill Deblasio announced that public schools would reopen with neither a remote option nor a vaccination mandate. For many students who are immunocompromised, disabled, or chronically ill, this means that they can’t be able to be part of a learning community without being put at undue risk. This decision will almost certainly limit opportunities, harming these vulnerable students exponentially. 

It is important to recognize that the recent normalization of remote learning occurred when able-bodied students needed it. But even if the pandemic disappeared tomorrow, a remote option should still remain standard in all schools. According to the CDC, 1 in 4 people are disabled. Virtual learning gives disabled and chronically ill people access to more convenient schooling and extracurriculars–there is no reason to take that away.

The disabled community is the largest growing minority group and the only one you can join at any time. We are all one accident away from becoming disabled; statistically, according to the UN Factsheet on Persons with Disabilities, people spend at least eight years of their lives being disabled from either aging or chronic illness. Additionally, if disabled students had been heard when requesting accessibility pre-pandemic, our transition to remote education would have already been perfected years before. Continuing access to remote learning will generate tech innovation in this area, benefiting all students in the case of another outbreak or natural disaster.

Public schools are not truly public unless they are accessible. It’s time we listen to ill and disabled students and provide them with the opportunities they deserve. We can start by signing a petition by Daniel Alicea to have remote options in New York City public schools. Beyond public education, we can all work on making things we have control of more accessible. If you are hosting an event, musical performance, or Model UN tournament, provide a remote option. Adding a Zoom link doesn’t take much from us, but it can open a whole new range of possibilities for vulnerable students. 


*name changed for private purposes